"Naked Cowboy" Wins Court Shoot-Out with Candy Cowboy
Areas of Focus | 2008/06/25 16:05

A ruling in a trademark infringement case filed by a New York street entertainer who performs as “The Naked Cowboy” is another indication that judges may be taking parodies too seriously when the parody conveys a commercial message.

Robert Burck alleged an animated cartoon advertisement that featured a blue M&M dressed “exactly like The Naked Cowboy” violated the Lanham Act, which prohibits a false endorsement of a product or service by a real person. The ad ran on oversized billboards in Times Square, where Burck plies his trade, dressed only in a white cowboy hat, cowboy boots and underpants.

M&M's manufacturer Mars, Inc. argued that no consumer would be likely to confuse its parody as an endorsement of its product by Burck. The cowboy M&M, it said, is “part of a series of parodies of the 'New York City experience,'” which also portrays an M&M as King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.

But U.S. District Judge Denny Chin denied Mars' motion to dismiss, finding factual issues as to whether the M&M Cowboy characters are a parody of Burck's creation.

“Some consumers, as defendants argue, may view the the M&M Cowboy characters as part of a larger work depicting New York scenes and parodying famous New York characters,” he said in a June 23 opinion. But, he continued,

other consumers may mistakenly believe that The Naked Cowboy himself endorsed the copying of his “trademarked likeness” because the M&M Cowboy characters appear in a commercial setting.

Chin's ruling is quite similar to that of a Los Angeles judge who ruled in December 2007 that Paris Hilton could sue Hallmark Cards over its humorous use of her likeness and “That's Hot” catchphrase on a greeting card.

“[T]he potential exists that the card is sufficiently evocative of an image Hilton has presented of herself that Hallmark is capitalizing on her notoriety,” U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson concluded.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has noted that “the cry of 'parody!' does not magically fend off otherwise legitimate legitimate claims of trademark infringement or dilution. There are confusing parodies and non-confusing parodies.” Dr. Seuss Enterprises v. Penguin Books, 109 F.3d 1394 (1997).

But parodies which have a commercial purpose should be protected under the First Amendment if the use of a trademark “was not specifically misleading as to sponsorship or endorsement.” In neither the Burck nor Hilton parodies is there any specific statement that the “real person” endorsed a product and judges are giving too much latitude to plaintiffs by ignoring that requirement.

Chin did dismiss Burck's publicity rights claim, in part because New York's "privacy statutes were not intended to protect a trademarked, costumed character publicly performed by a person."



Naked Cowboy Sues M&M's
Legal Topics | 2008/06/24 17:24
"This is the case of The Naked Cowboy versus The Blue M&M," afederal judge wrote in allowing The Naked Cowboy's lawsuit against Marscandy and Chute Gerdeman ad agency to proceed. "Plaintiff Robert Burckis a 'street entertainer' who performs in New York City's Times Square,wearing only a white cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and underpants, andcarrying a guitar strategically placed to give the illusion of nudity."He claims Mars & Chute Gerdeman based a Times Square billboard adon his character, "featuring a blue M&M dressed 'exactly like TheNaked Cowboy,' wearing only a white cowboy hate, cowboy boots, andunderpants, and carrying a guitar."

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin kindly attached photos of the two characters at the top of his ruling.

Burck,who has registered The Naked Cowboy as a trademark, claims defendants'animated cartoon ad on two enormous billboards in Times Square violatedhis trademark and his right to publicity.

Chin dismissed thetrademark complaint, finding that New York law "protects the name,portrait, or picture of a 'living person,' not a character created or arole performed by a living person. Burck may proceed, however, with hisfalse endorsement claim, for he plausibly alleges that consumers seeingdefendants' advertisement would conclude - incorrectly - that heendorsed M&M candy."


Supreme Court weighs whales vs war preparation
Legal Topics | 2008/06/24 16:41
The Supreme Court will have the final say on whether war preparation trumps whale protection.

Acting at the Bush administration's urging, the court agreed Monday to review a federal appeals court ruling that limited the use of sonar in naval training exercises off Southern California's coast because of its potential to harm marine mammals.

Sonar, which the Navy relies on to locate enemy submarines, can interfere with whales' ability to navigate and communicate. There is also evidence that the technology has caused whales to strand themselves on shore.

The Navy argues that the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco jeopardizes its ability to train sailors and Marines for service in wartime in exchange for a limited environmental benefit. The Navy says it has already taken steps to protect beaked whales, dolphins and other creatures in balancing war training and environmental protections, officials said.



Fight over White House subpoenas heads to court
Legal Topics | 2008/06/23 15:55
Congress issued its demands. The White House refused. Now it's up to a federal judge to settle a dispute over documents and testimony regarding fired federal prosecutors.

Lawyers for the White House and Congress were headed to court Monday to argue the scope of the president's power to ignore legislative subpoenas. Court fights on this topic are rare and are normally reserved for questions of whether the White House has to cooperate with a criminal investigation, not with a congressional inquiry.

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee is demanding documents and testimony from the president's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, and former counsel Harriet Miers about the firing of U.S. attorneys. The scandal helped force the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The White House says Miers and Bolten do not need to comply with the subpoenas, citing executive privilege, the principle that one branch of government can't make another branch do something.

Judges normally try to stay out of disputes between the executive and legislative branches. The Bush administration wants the court to avoid this fight, too. Lawmakers say the court is obligated to help enforce a congressional subpoena.



Court to rule on pension credit for old maternity leaves
Areas of Focus | 2008/06/22 15:54
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether decades-old maternity leaves should count in determining pensions.

The issue has split federal appeals courts and could become increasingly important as women who took maternity leaves in the 1960's and 70's approach retirement.

Their pregnancies occurred before the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, enacted in 1979, barred companies from treating pregnancy leaves differently from other disability leaves. Since then, maternity leave has been credited toward retirement.

The case before the court involves four AT&T Corp. employees who each took at least one maternity leave between 1968 and 1976. They have 67-261 days of uncredited leave because their pregnancies occurred before the law changed.



Federal court issues stay in SC execution
Legal Topics | 2008/06/20 15:53
A man scheduled to be executed on Friday was issued a stay just minutes before he was to be electrocuted, triggering a flurry of legal moves as the state sought to carry out the sentence before a midnight deadline.

James Earl Reed had been scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Friday. A federal judge in Columbia issued the stay at 5:40 p.m. after a defense attorney's last-minute request for the execution to be halted. Five hours later, the appeals court vacated the stay and defense lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution. The state was fighting that possibility.

Under the state's execution order, the death sentence had to be carried out by midnight or it would have to be rescheduled. By 11 p.m., as the high court considered the defense's request, witnesses for the execution were being brought to the death chamber.

Reed, 49, has been on death row since 1996, when he was convicted of murdering Joseph and Barbara Lafayette in their Charleston County home two years earlier. Prosecutors said he was looking for an ex-girlfriend.

During his trial, Reed fired his attorney and represented himself, denying the killings despite a confession and arguing that no physical evidence placed him at the scene. Jurors found him guilty and decided he should die.

In the request for the stay, the defense attorney cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision the day before regarding defendants' rights to represent themselves, according to the order by U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd. The high court on Thursday said a defendant can be judged competent to stand trial, yet incapable of acting as his own lawyer.

Reed would be the first person executed by electric chair in the U.S. in nearly a year and South Carolina's first since 2004.

In South Carolina, anyone sentenced to death may choose the electric chair or lethal injection. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, eight other states electrocute inmates.



Supreme court puts limits on mentally ill defendants
Legal Topics | 2008/06/19 18:30
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that criminal defendants with a history of mental illness do not always have the right to represent themselves, even if they have been judged competent to stand trial.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, said states can give trial judges discretion to prevent someone from acting as his own lawyer if they are concerned that the trial could turn into a farce.

The decision comes in the case of an Indiana man who was convicted of attempted murder and other charges in 2005 for a shooting six years earlier at an Indianapolis department store.

Ahmad Edwards was initially found to be schizophrenic and suffering from delusions and spent most of the five years after the shooting in state psychiatric facilities. But by 2005, he was judged competent to stand trial.

Edwards asked to represent himself. A judge denied the request because he was concerned that Edwards' trial would not be fair. Edwards, represented by a lawyer, was convicted anyway and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He appealed, and Indiana courts agreed that his right to represent himself had been violated, citing a U.S. high court decision from 1993. The courts overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.

Thursday's ruling probably will lead to the reinstatement of the conviction.

"The Constitution permits states to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial ... but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. "In my view, the Constitution does not permit a state to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant's right to make his own case before the jury," Scalia said.



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